Meditation on Judges 5-6
Deborah was the only female judge recorded in Israel’s history. We don’t know why that is, or how she got into that position, though we do know that she was a wife and a mother (unless the mention that she is a “mother in Israel,” Judges 5:7, is symbolic of her role over her people). When God instituted judges to help Moses, he was specifically instructed to appoint men to that position. Perhaps, as in the days of Gideon, the men of Israel were all so cowed by their oppressors that God could not find a man of faith, so he found a woman instead. (Gideon eventually did as God asked, but it sure took a lot of convincing on God’s part.) We can see that faith is scarce by Barak’s response when Deborah told him to go up against Sisera—he was so fearful that he insisted that she be the one to lead the armies into battle! Presumably had he done what the Lord commanded through Deborah without shrinking back in fear, the glory for finishing off Sisera would have gone to him, rather than to Jael.
It’s easy to understand why the men were so fearful, if you only look at the situation in the natural. They had been oppressed by King Jabin for at least twenty years. The Israelite armies had not one shield or spear among forty thousand (Judges 5:8), compared to Sisera, who had nine hundred chariots of iron. Most of the tribes of Israel refused to heed Barak’s call (Judges 5:13-18), so even their numbers were pitiful compared to what they might have been. But it didn’t matter: the Lord caused the river Kishon to sweep the chariots away (Judges 5:21). This might have been due to rain overflowing the banks, and the water from the mountains rushing down to the banks as well (Judges 5:4-5)—perhaps due to marshy conditions, the chariots got stuck and were rendered useless. Regardless, when the Israelites came against Sisera’s far more powerful army, they killed every last one of them (Judges 4:16) by the sword—swords they didn’t even have to begin with! Sisera alone fled on foot. Since the Israelites had no swords, presumably they took their enemies’ own swords and used those against them.
Heber, meanwhile, was mentioned just before the verse that someone told Sisera of the assembly of Barak’s armies, so presumably he was the one who tattled. Sisera would have felt safe in Jael’s tent, as she was Heber’s wife. He just assumed that she shared her husband’s political views. Oops.
Jael’s action can be considered as an act of war, rather than murder. She was not permitted to fight openly on the battlefield, so she did what she could. Any of the soldiers on the battlefield would have been delighted to do the same, had they been given the chance.
The two disputing Israelite women, now reconciled, made their way down through the mountains of Ephraim. I sat alone under my palm tree now, awaiting the next case the Israelites would bring before me for judgment.
This was my favorite part, though: the moments in between. The moments of peace, where I could just listen to the wind whipping through the palm branches above my head. I closed my eyes, letting the breeze caress my face.
It is time.
My eyes flew open. The sound came to my spirit like a whisper, and yet I knew it as the voice of the Lord. My heart beat faster, because I knew what He meant, too: I had been pleading since my early adulthood, for the past twenty years, to deliver us from the oppressive hand of King Jabin of Canaan. We were the Lord’s people, and He had given the land of Canaan to us—and yet, due to our disobedience, He had allowed us to be oppressed by our enemies. We had not one spear or shield among forty thousand Israelites: not even the means to defend ourselves. We had no money to pay the men who risked their lives on our behalf. I had expected the Lord to provide both of those things before a military approach would be feasible.
And yet, with neither weapons nor money, and most of Israel still trembling in fear, God still told me, It is time.
“What should I do, Lord?” I asked aloud.
What came next was an impression, rather than words. I saw Barak, son of Abinoam from Kedesh, of the tribe of Naphtali. He was on Mount Tabor, with a sea of Israelite men, though I knew without counting that there were ten thousand of them. They were sons of Naphtali and of Zebulun. I saw Sisera, commander of Jabin’s armies, coming against him, his nine hundred chariots of iron all around him. The battle took place at the River Kishon. Despite the inequality of weapons and the fact that Sisera was not taken unawares, in my vision, Sisera’s entire army fell before Barak’s.
“You have shown this to Barak as well?” I asked the Lord out loud. I sensed that the answer was yes.
The next person I saw cresting the hill to where I sat was my husband Lapidoth, and our three children. They skipped like little lambs, and I stood up, grinning, to welcome them. Lapidoth had a basket slung over his arm, which I knew contained whatever food he was able to scrounge up for our midday meal. It was never much, but we never went hungry either. The Lord always provided.
“Busy today?” he asked me, as we all settled down to eat.
My eyes shone as I told him what the Lord had shown me. “Would you summon Barak when you return to the valley?” I asked. “I must speak with him today.”
Lapidoth did as I asked, and several hours later, just at the golden hour before sunset, I saw Barak cresting the hill, alone. He was a large, thickly built man, with a heavy brow and an expression etched in stone. He looked every bit the military commander.
“Has not the Lord God of Israel already told you what you are to do?” I asked him, and described what I saw. “Thus says the Lord: ‘I will deliver Sisera into your hand at the River Kishon.’”
Barak shuffled his feet, cleared his throat, and did not answer me immediately. At last he said, “If you will go with me, then I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go!”
I stared at him, not sure I heard him right. This man weighed as much as three of me. I was a wife and a mother! True, God had placed me as judge over Israel, though I had always wondered why He had chosen a woman for the position, when Moses had originally indicated that the job should be held by “able men, such as fear God, men of truth …to be rulers of thousands and rulers of hundreds… and let them judge the people at all seasons.” Men, he had specified. Yet, here I was. Was that because God could not find a man worthy to fill the role? Of course I never intimated these thoughts to my husband, who chafed enough that I held a position of leadership in Israel when he did not. But now I saw before me the man God had chosen to lead his armies, and yet he had so little faith that he would demand a wife and mother lead his troops into battle for him!
When I recovered my tongue, I said sternly, “I will surely go with you. Nevertheless, there will be no glory for you in the journey you are taking, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.”
Barak looked less chagrined at this than I thought he should have. Truth to tell, he looked more relieved than anything else. I arose and went with him to his home of Kedesh, and he sent messengers to the tribes of Israel to recruit soldiers willing to obey the word of the Lord. I was appalled but not surprised when entire tribes refused: Reuben, Gilead, Asher, and Dan sent not a single man. We had a few from Ephraim and from Benjamin, but the bulk of the army, as I had seen in my vision, were from Naphtali and Zebulun. They arrived at Mount Tabor in the coming days bearing what weapons they could find: pitchforks and other instruments of harvesting, stones and homemade slingshots. My heart swelled with the pride of these men who did Israel proud, unlike their brothers.
Oh Lord, there are still some who believe in You!
Yes Daughter, I heard in my spirit. There are always a few.
Down below, Sisera had somehow gotten word that Israel had assembled troops against him—but that was all right. I had expected from my vision that he would. I felt the men grow apprehensive around me as they watched the chariots of iron assembling from Harosheth Hagoyim to the River Kishon. They looked from the chariots down below to their makeshift weapons of farming equipment, their expressions ranging from apprehension to terror. I suppressed a sigh of exasperation.
“Up!” I declared to Barak. “For this is the day in which the Lord has delivered Sisera into your hand. Has not the Lord gone out before you?”
I led the charge down the mountain toward the army below, though I had no weapon in my hand at all. As soon as Barak saw me move, he kept pace with me and soon outstripped me—his legs were much longer than mine. The ten thousand troops kept pace with him, and I soon found myself lost in the thick of the fighting men.
When we reached the River Kishon where Sisera’s armies awaited us, I was confused at first why he did not direct his chariots to surge forward to meet us. Then I saw that their chariots had been rendered useless to them, the wheels stuck in the marshy ground left over from the rain. Sisera’s army had alighted from their chariots to try to dislodge them when Israel descended upon them with a mighty war cry. In short order, the men of Israel had slain their first victims and stolen their swords, at which point they tore through the rest of the army. But I fixed my gaze upon one man, whose chariot looked more impressive than all the others. When it became apparent that he could not dislodge it from the marshy ground, and the first wave of Israelites defeated the front lines of his army, he alighted from his chariot and fled on foot. He ran in the direction of the terebinth tree at Zaanaim, where I suspected his allies were. Behind him, the Israelites slew every last man of his army. He alone escaped.
My eyes narrowed at the man. That, I knew, was Sisera.
My husband Heber was a traitor.
We Kenites had historically been allied with the children of Israel, as descendants of Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law. But Heber was an opportunist, and decided to ally himself with Jabin, the King of Canaan, instead. He would never fail to side with whoever would benefit him the most.
So we had moved away from the rest of the Kenites, away from everyone we had ever known, and pitched our tent at Zaanaim, where Heber could spy on Israel and report what he had learned to Sisera, Jabin’s military leader. Since Zaanaim was right next to Kedesh, Heber saw when Barak assembled his armies at Mount Tabor. It was he who had alerted Sisera to gather his chariots so that Barak’s army would not take him unawares.
Heber had gone early that morning, to watch what he expected to be the massacre of the Israelites from a safe distance.
Hours went by. I was grateful to have the day to myself at least, but I spent most of it fuming.
I hated King Jabin. I hated Sisera. I hated Heber.
I wanted to be an Israelite again. Or at least an ally to the Israelites. I wanted to belong to their God.
But I was no soldier. I was left out of all machinations, as I was only a woman. What could I do?
Suddenly I froze, hearing a noise I couldn’t quite make out at first. The sound slowly sharpened into the pounding of feet on the ground, and when it got close enough, I heard that it was accompanied by panting as well. Frowning, I approached the flap of my tent and pulled it aside.
Sisera stood before me, alone and on foot, streaming with perspiration.
“Please, my lady,” he gasped, dropping his hands to his knees as he caught his breath. “May I—trouble you for your hospitality?”
I blinked quickly, my mind whirring. Fortunately my mouth worked faster than my brain, and I at once affected womanly concern. “Oh, turn aside, my lord! Turn aside to me; do not fear.” I stepped aside to let the grateful commander pass into my tent. I knew already what I planned to do; I just did not yet know how.
“All of my men have been slaughtered,” Sisera confessed to me, eyes wild with fear. “I alone escaped on foot as you see, and I am sure that the Israelites are pursuing me too now!”
“Never fear, I will keep your secret,” I soothed, and gestured to our own bedding on the ground. “Rest from all your worries. You will need to sleep for a while to have your wits about you, for whatever comes next.” Whatever, indeed.
With no further prompting, Sisera collapsed onto the bed. I clucked my tongue as I pulled a blanket over him, and watched him close his eyes.
“Please give me a little water to drink,” he croaked, “for I am thirsty.”
“I will do better than that,” I cooed, “I have a jug of milk.” I went and retrieved it, and as if he were an invalid or a child, I lifted it to his lips. He drank greedily, the cream running down his chin. He wiped it away with his forearm and lay back down again with a sigh of contentment and relief.
“Stand at the door of the tent,” he begged, “and if any man comes and inquires of you, and says ‘Is there any man here?’ you shall say ‘No.’”
“I will, my lord,” I murmured. “Now close your eyes and rest awhile.”
He needed no further encouragement. Within a few moments, I heard the soft sounds of his rhythmic breathing, followed by occasional snores. I smiled, and went outside the tent, pulling up one of the tent pegs. I wiped off its dirt upon my skirts, and then went back inside, rummaging around for the hammer my husband had used to place it in the first place. Then, grasping the peg in one hand and the hammer in the other, I approached the sleeping commander. He still snored peacefully. Ever so gently, I placed the peg at his temple so as not to wake him. Then, heart pounding, I hammered it in. Straight through to the ground.
Only a woman, I thought, and smiled.
I wiped the blood on my skirts, right next to the dirt, and calmly walked to the tent entrance to wait for the Israelites whom Sisera had said would be hot on his trail.
I recognized Barak as the commander of the Israelite army by the way he was dressed, and flagged him down.
“Come,” I said “I will show you the man whom you seek.”
He followed me inside, and gasped. Then he let out an incredulous chuckle.
“‘The Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman,’” he murmured, but to himself, as if quoting something. Then he looked at me. “I thought He meant Deborah!”
“Your judge?” I asked, confused.
Barak nodded. “I certainly never thought he meant the wife of our enemy!”
I stiffened. “Do not judge me with my husband. We do not see eye to eye, to say the least.”
“No, I can see that,” Barak agreed, with a glance at the dead man in my bed.
After Barak, waves of other Israelites followed, including the famous prophetess herself. Together, Barak and Deborah composed a song of worship to the Lord on the spot, singing about the great victory to the Lord had given them, both at the river, and here in my tent. I choked back tears when they sang about me. The rest of the Israelite soldiers learned the song as they composed it, singing along. I found myself singing along too.
What will Heber say, I wondered with fierce pride, to come home and find that his wife is now the blessed of Israel?